From a young age, we learn by observing key influencers in our lives. In an ideal world, children watch and learn from their parents. However, 960,000 children in Australia* are living without a father figure in the home. In other homes, Dad is there but often unavailable or distracted. And for the vast majority of dads, we struggle to simply do the best we can.
So how do boys learn how to grow up and become good dads? How do girls know what to look for in a potential future husband and father of their children? Put simply, what makes a great dad?
Some fathers are awesome because their dad was a great role model, and they simply copied what he did. Other fathers are painfully aware of their dad’s shortcomings, so they intentionally parent differently or even the opposite way. In doing so, they can also become great fathers.
Author, father of three and my mate Robert Garrett set out to find the characteristics of a great father when researching for his book More Like the Father. Drawing on the experiences of sons who had great fathers, Robert concluded that great dads possess these characteristics (in order):
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1. Dad loves Mum
2. Dad loves God
3. Dad is others-focused – a servant leader
4. Dad prioritises church
5. Dad invests in the next generation
6. Dad prioritises family
7. Dad is consistent
8. Dad takes an interest in what his children are interested in
9. Dad prays
10. Dad teaches his children life skills
I love this list, with one exception – I would position ‘Dad loves God’ at the top of the list. Here’s why:
Our Heavenly Father is our perfect role model
In the Old Testament, God is our Creator, Defender and Judge. In the New Testament, that relationship deepens. Through Jesus, we have unfettered access to God, our Heavenly Father. We are now free to approach him directly and to feel his love more closely as his Spirit lives inside us, even as he disciplines us.
I love the picture of God as a Heavenly Father – an almighty fortress, a protector, a safe haven. A place where we can be vulnerable and honest, and feel enormously loved. He is no longer abstract, distant or untouchable. We know his character – he is a God of love, he acts for us against injustice and will protect us. Our Heavenly Father is a perfect model of how to father with strength and gentleness.
God provides other godly role models
Fatherhood often feels impossibly difficult, and yet God makes the impossible possible. His love for us is the template for how we should love our kids. His Son – Jesus – shows us how to love sacrificially. Jesus models obedience and perseverance. He prays. He lays difficult decisions at his Father’s feet and he trusts his Father’s plan.
When it comes to earthly role models, of course, no father figure will be perfect – even those great dads. For many men, if not the majority, the reality is that we have been scarred by some aspects of our father’s parenting.
I have benefited greatly from other older men who have modelled godly fatherhood principles to me.
In his book I Am Not My Father, pastor Paul Scanlon talks about his dysfunctional experience of being fathered and how that drove him to break a generational pattern, determined not to repeat the mistakes of successive generations of men in his family. Scanlon reminds us that we are free to evaluate and decide what characteristics or behaviours we adopt from our own experiences. While my own father was, in some ways, not the role model I needed, I have benefited greatly from other older men who have modelled godly fatherhood principles to me.
‘Good fathers’ reflect the very nature of our Heavenly Father. They have learnt how to be loving, patient and kind. They’ve learnt life hacks to preserve margin for their families in order to be present and engaged with them. They know how to model behaviours so their kids cherish the Bible, and see the importance of meeting with God’s people and coming before God in prayer.
Again, these role models are not perfect. They’re honest. They admit their flaws and seek God’s provision so they can continue to grow as a father. They do the unimpressive, impressively. They ‘show up’ week in, week out. They teach their kids, over and over again, to “love the Lord their God with all [their] heart, soul and strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
So press on dads. Look up towards our Heavenly Father. Flee to the Bible for wisdom. Fall on your knees and beg for the counsel of the Holy Spirit. Reach out to your brothers for support and look to older saints for guidance. No matter what your relationship with your earthly father is, or was, look to God and strive to become more like the Father.
*Australian Bureau of Statistics, June 2022
Kym Abbott is a part-time children’s minister and part-time chiropractor in Sydney. He and Robert Garrett – author, speaker and organisational change consultant – share a passion for encouraging and equipping dads to self-sacrificially lead their families, in church and in their community. Look out for Kym and Robert’s upcoming podcast More Like the Father at morelikethefather.com.au.